Theatre in Wales

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RWCMD’s Gala Day (part 2)

Public Event

Richard Burton: A Celebration , Dora Stoutzker Hall RWCMD , July 1, 2011
Public Event by Richard Burton: A Celebration There is an alternative answer to be found in Gwynne Edwards’ play that has been selling out Welsh venues for a year or so now. His Burton, and that of biographers, is of the man whose happiest moments were by his fire at Celigny in Switzerland, a new book in his hand. An early job had been as delivery boy with the Co-op. The shortest despatch would take a strangely long time; the Co-op bicycle was often to be seen parked outside the local Carnegie Library. On his travels his book bag was always there. His love of writing, they say, eclipsed his love of acting. Burton’s correspondents covered an enormous range, not just fellow actors but Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood, J K Galbraith and A L Rowse, even President Nixon.

The life was disordered and unruly, but there is testimony after testimony to the kindness and charity, the zest and gusto, the commitment to family. And the work is what matters. A snippet of that great voice was played from a recording with Jeff Wayne. Two of the speakers made mention of the appearance in Christopher Fry’s “the Lady’s Not for Burning.” Burton appeared in a scene in which as the orphaned clerk he had to clean a floor. The charisma of his presence threw into shadow the lead characters who had the speaking roles in the scene. The leads who were over-shadowed were not minor actors either. That they were John Gielgud and Pamela Brown says it all about his stage magnetism.

The evening was about celebrating the man as well as the actor. Kim Howells did some neat diplomatic steps but as Robert Hardy said after the first divorce he and many friends were perforce loyal to first wife Sybil. Claire Bloom’s association went back to 1949 and a production at the Globe Theatre but inevitably the jet-set existence of the sixties imposed its distance. But then achievers in any field rarely come wrapped in a nice package of ease and virtue. Saintliness is pretty dull anyhow.

If the acting had a piercing truth about it, it was a quality that was rooted in the private man. There is a notebook entry that should be read by every reality TV wannabe. He wrote September 15th 1971 “I was a millionaire, I had a sweet little estate in Celigny, I had a superb convertible Cadillac….a large library, an insatiable thirst for knowledge and the means to satisfy it and every opportunity to play anything I wanted and I was terribly unhappy.”

I am not much given to quoting Kenneth Tynan. I care little for the cruelty of his writing towards actors. But 26th February 1956 after seeing his Iago in “Othello” he wrote “Within this actor there is always something reserved, a secret upon which trespassers will be prosecuted, a rooted solitude which his Welsh blood tinges with mystery.” The phrasing may be somewhat melodramatic but there is a truth in the ultimate unknowability of both the art and the man.

The most eloquently poignant words of the evening were spoken by Robert Hardy. He felt, he said, as if he had known him two lifetimes, the forty years of lived experience, and the long years since.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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